OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGokwe, the cotton-producing district in Midlands province, has become synonymous with witchcraft and the occult. Basing on the number of reported cases, Gokwe could easily compete with the lightning-makers of Chipinge to top the “Witchcraft Order of Merit”.

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Imagine someone confessing before multitudes that he/she is a witch, that he/she uses owls, hyenas and baboon hands as “tools of the trade” and has “flown” unimaginable distances in a reed basket.

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Now imagine that person being your loved one, a close relative, a friend or a neighbour.

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It’s not a pretty thought.

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The subject of witchcraft and the occult is an uneasy one, and people either believe these things exist or that they don’t.

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Witchcraft is the practice of and belief in magical skills and abilities, whilst the occult refers to knowledge of the hidden.

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Throughout human history, unexplained happenings that extend beyond pure reason and physical sciences have been reported. And these fuel belief in witchcraft and the occult.

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Although Zimbabwe is widely regarded as a Christian nation with more than 90 percent of its population identifying themselves with one denomination or the other, belief in witchcraft and the occult is still widespread.

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We have heard of lightning being “manufactured” in parts of Manicaland, with the bolts sent to strike down enemies and rivals.

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In Mashonaland West and Central provinces, we hear of a magical spell called runyoka which married people use to trap cheating spouses.

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Every other week, there are images of startled self-confessed witches being caught stark naked in people’s houses after the cold light of morning unexpectedly reveals to the world their doings.

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Last year, residents of Budiriro in Harare were baffled by the case of two alleged witches whose reed basket “crash-landed” in the suburb. That story was ultimately proved to be a hoax contrived by an ambitious would-be prophet who wanted to grow his business.

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In 2013 in Mucheke, Masvingo people woke up to the sight of a naked woman in a stranger’s house and naturally witchcraft was suspected.

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The “witch” said she lived in Muzarabani, a locale that one does not get to on foot from Masvingo.

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This happened about a week after another suspected witch from Muzarabani was found naked in Dzivarasekwa, Harare. She was on a bed and had blood on her mouth.

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Although “witches” have been reportedly caught in almost all parts of Zimbabwe, some areas seem to have more than their fair share of suspects.

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Gokwe, the cotton-producing district in Midlands province, has become synonymous with witchcraft and the occult.

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Basing on the number of reported cases, Gokwe could easily compete with the lightning-makers of Chipinge to top the “Witchcraft Order of Merit”.

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In pre-colonial times, Gokwe was already a witchcraft hotbed, with the mere mention of the infamous Gandavaroyi Falls, located some 100km from Nembudziya Shopping Centre, instilling fear in the hearts and minds of locals and visitors.

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Local tradition has it that suspected witches were thrown down the falls, hence the Shona name “Gandavaroyi”.

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Once a person was brought before the community court and found guilty of practicing witchcraft, the person would be tossed down the falls. Naturally, innocent people met their deaths at these falls because there really is no way of proving witchcraft.

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During a recent visit to Gokwe, people said they did not venture near the falls because the spirits of those killed there haunt the area.

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In Mashonanaland West’s Hurungwe district, there is much talk about a magical spell called zvishiri – magical birds sent by witchdoctors to maim and kill people. They attack from the blue and often no one else but the victim can see them.

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Muzarabani, a district in Mashonaland Central province, is often in the news because of witchcraft. Zaka and Mwenezi, both districts in Masvingo province, are also prominent in these matters.

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But it is Manicaland’s Chipinge district that makes a strong case to be the centre of the occult in Zimbabwe.

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Hundreds of people flock weekly to the district to consult witchdoctors. It is almost “normal” among Zimbabweans to fear the prowess of the super-sangomas of Chipinge.

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Writing on witchcraft, the late Professor Gordon Chavunduka, a former University of Zimbabwe Vice-Chancellor and president of the Zimbabwe National Healers Association, spoke of the difficulties of dealing with witchcraft.

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In a paper titled “Witchcraft and the Law in Zimbabwe”, Prof Chavunduka said traditional courts agreed that witches existed while formal courts thought otherwise.

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The Witchcraft Suppression Act, which was inherited from the Cape Colony and was passed in 1899, remains unchanged.

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The act is often regarded by traditional courts as an unjust piece of legislation since it seeks to punish anyone who accuses another person of witchcraft.

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This is to protect people from being condemned to death after being found guilty of practising an art whose existence cannot be proved to exist.

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The High Court’s Justice Maphios Cheda has urged Government to ease colonial era restrictions on the practice of witchcraft.

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At the official opening of the 2013 Judicial Year, Justice Cheda said many Zimbabweans retain strong beliefs in the power of spirit mediums and held fast to traditional rites.

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“The strongly held conviction of belief in witchcraft and traditional healers . . . cannot be wished away,” Justice Cheda said, urging amendment of the century-old Witchcraft Suppression Act “in keeping with the popular thinking and beliefs of the majority in this country”.